Dr. Matthew Goers has known what he wanted to do with his life since he was 12 years old, tagging along with his mom, Dr. Kathy Lentz, an ophthalmologist, on humanitarian trips to places like Cuba and Kenya. He saw up close the difference that medicine can make in people’s lives, and knew he wanted to be a part of that.
“Especially in Kenya, we got to visit local villages where she was working, and I do remember this one time I met this 12-year-old kid about my age who had yellow, kind of sclerotic eyes and was really kind of emaciated,” Goers recalled. “I realized I wanted to help, but that’s kind of a generic thing as a 12-year-old, but that’s why I went into medicine, because that’s the kind of work I wanted to do.”
Today Goers, a 2007 graduate of Washington High School and the son of Lentz and Keith Goers, Washington, is doing just that.
His job title is Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer with the Emergency Response and Recovery Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Ga., but his work is more simply described as “disease detective.”
“We are on the front lines investigating different types of public health threats,” said Goers, an internal medicine physician.
“We address outbreaks and public health issues abroad so they never reach America’s shores.”
Two months ago, Dr. Goers was in Nigeria evaluating emergency surveillance systems. The country has been involved in a conflict with Boko Haram (a militant Islamist group) for about a decade, he explained.
That has caused a lot of Nigerians to be displaced, setting up refugee camps inside their own country.
“Anytime a refugee situation occurs, you have people in really bad housing situations, close quarters, poor sanitary conditions, so outbreaks can happen,” said Dr. Goers.
“In a normal health care setting, you might have a system in place that flags the local government anytime you have a dangerous disease that could potentially start spreading, but in emergencies, like they have in Nigeria, those systems break down and it’s not as easy to send a report up the road when the road itself is dangerous because of all the violence.”
Goers was in Nigeria evaluating a program, EWARS or Early Warning Alert and Response System, that had been developed by the World Health Organization.
“It is called EWARS in a Box, because literally a kit contains cellphones and laptops,” said Goers. “They distribute cellphones to local hospitals and clinics, so that when they see one of these diseases that can cause outbreaks, that first one, they can send a text message to their local government to notify them of what has been going on and ask for help.”
Being in Nigeria and working with his counterparts in that country’s CDC was exciting for Goers, who feels like careerwise, he’s exactly where he has always wanted to be.
“It was a pretty great experience,” Goers remarked. “We got to work with Nigerian partners. There is a Nigerian CDC we got to work with. We got to work with WHO, and even this program that is kind of like the EIS called the Field Epidemiology Training Program. They were just a wonderful group to work with. We are writing up our report now.”
As part of his job with the EIS, Goers is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Public Health Service, which is the military branch under the surgeon general.
“It’s also rewarding because I get to serve my country. I get to work not only here in the United States, but abroad to help keep people safe, so it feels pretty great.”
Commitment to Public Health Began in Medical School
After graduating from WHS, Goers enrolled in a six-year medical program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City that allows students to earn both a B.A. and M.D. in six years.
Goers also found time to get involved with a couple of organizations that went beyond “one-on-one patient care” to help the broader community. Through Global Med, Goers worked with a clinic in Uganda doing things like digging wells, leading nutrition projects and getting people connected to HIV medicines.
He also served in a free health clinic working with Kansas City’s homeless population and found the work rewarding.
“I saw that even though I loved working one-on-one with patients, there is something to be said for working with a whole community in public health,” said Goers. “It just broadens your impact and it feels pretty fulfilling.”
Goers continued his service in public health during his internal medicine residency at the University of Minnesota, where he was one of the chief residents.
He spent a half-year in Tanzania providing medical care and also completed rotations in refugee camps in Uganda in 2015.
“In this particular camp there was a condition called splenomegaly, basically an enlarged spleen, in about one in six refugees in the camp,” said Goers. “So what we did is we went there to try to find out why this was happening. Not a lot of people were sick, but this is what we found, and we know this is a condition that can cause problems down the road. So our investigation was to find out why this was happening.”
The people Goers was helping in Uganda were refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been mired in a civil war for years.
Goers was in Uganda with the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, which helps people with refugee relocation.
“All these refugees that we were screening were going to be coming to the United States, and you want to make sure they are going to be healthy for the journey and when they come to the United States. So that’s why we were performing these evaluations,” Goers said.
That experience in Uganda was Goers first with the CDC and how he became connected with the EIS, where he works today.
“They basically told me You could do this for the rest of your life through this job, so that’s why I applied, and that’s where I am now.”
Continues to Work With Refugees
With the EIS, Goers has been able to continue his work with refugees.
“That’s a pretty rewarding experience,” he said.
“That project that I did in Uganda, we gave letters to people so when they came to the United States to let doctors know about what’s been going on, and in my clinic, I saw some refugees who handed me those exact same letters. So that was a pretty cool experience.”
He’s also gotten to work with some refugees who are fellow doctors.
“One of my good friends from my training program is a Syrian refugee. He actually had to finish his last year of medical school in Lebanon, the country next door, because of all the violence,” said Goers, noting his friend started a charity to help newly arrived refugees with clothes.
He mentioned another friend he has from Afghanistan who had to flee the Taliban as a child but now is a doctor working for NASA.
“So I just think it’s a pretty cool job, because you get to help people get back on their two feet, and you get to invest in people, and they can be pretty inspiring if you give them a chance,” said Goers.
“They are just incredible people,” he said, of the refugees he’s met. “They are resilient, and I think if you give people the tools to get their lives back together, they will wow you.”
Home for the Holidays
Goers makes trips home to Washington from Atlanta as often as he can. He was in town over the summer and is home this weekend for Thanksgiving. He also is planning to come home for Christmas.
During medical school, Goers was able to come back to Washington as part of his studies. Students are encouraged to work in rural areas, and he requested to complete a rotation with Dr. David Brunworth.
“It was pretty great,” Goers remarked.
Although he travels quite a bit for his work, Goers said it’s also how he likes to spend his free time.
“I have been to 27 countries now. When I was in Tanzania, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I’ve got plans to visit some other countries with some friends in this coming year,” he said.
‘Kind of a Dream Job’
Thinking back to when he was 12 years old wanting to follow in his mom’s footsteps doing humanitarian medical work, Goers said he’s exactly where he always wanted to be.
“I’ve got to admit, this is kind of a dream job for me,” he said. “You get to build on the progress people have been able to achieve. The role I’m in is more capacity building abroad. It’s less just putting out fires and more kind of helping countries stand on their own two feet.
“I think it’s just a pretty great job because it helps people, that whole ‘Teach a man to fish’ kind of philosophy,” he said.